Give Him the Bird

What do Bill Owens and Bert from Sesame Street have in common? Pigeons.

"Here!" Adugalski cries. He has lifted a pigeon off her nest and underneath discovered a fuzzy yellow chick, just minutes out of its egg. "Here is new life come into the world!"

A few feet away, he carefully removes a bird from a coop about two feet off the ground. "Here's my baby," he coos. "My liiiit-tle baby. My little girl." He snuggles the bird up to his chin, shuts his eyes and rocks slightly. "How are you doing, you silly?"

"She always waits for me," he says. "But now" -- a hint of irritation creeps into his voice -- "now she has a boyfriend." His voice changes back. "Ooooo, my buh-bee."

Homeward bound: Adam Adugalski wants big money from his pigeons.
John Johnston
Homeward bound: Adam Adugalski wants big money from his pigeons.

"Okay," he says crisply. "Go back to your boyfriend," and he plops the pigeon back into the coop.

None of the birds are named. This is less a matter of convenience -- Adugalski easily recognizes every one of the pigeons from a distance -- than a personal defense mechanism. Birds entered in races often must be left behind, where they will either be auctioned off (much like a claiming race for horses) or put down. "So you can't get too emotionally attached to your birds," he explains. "Like anything else in life, right?"

One of Adugalski's backyard lofts is completely caged in. It holds a handful of his most successful birds, the ones that have placed well in big races, now roosting in retirement like living trophies. For example, "Here is my pigeon that won second place in a big race in 1999, in Baltimore," he boasts. "See how smooth and beautiful she is, like a queen?"

The building is completely caged; nothing can enter, nothing can leave. This is because the birds were trained to return to lofts at each race site's finish line. If they were to escape from here, they'd leave to look for their other home and never return to Denver. "They are like me," he says. "Just like I am an American now. I will never return to Poland."

Back inside his house, Adugalski looks fondly out his kitchen window, letting his eyes linger on some birds that have wandered outside in what has now become a heavy snow flurry. "Look!" he says. "There are my pigeons! That is what a man likes best -- to look out his window, any window, and see his pigeons."

The phone rings and I pick it up. "Hello," a familiar voice says. "This is Bill 'Pigeon' Owens. And it's true -- I was quite a fancier in my day."

The governor's day turns out to be a period of time that is not so recent. "When I was in about third grade, a gentleman down by our shopping center, a friend of me and my friend's families, got us interested in pigeons," he recalls. His interest grew until he had about forty birds stashed in a loft outside his sister's bedroom window. "I don't know if she's forgiven me for that."

The Fort Worth pigeon club to which Owens belonged met on Friday nights, when members would bring their birds and prepare them for the Saturday race. The pigeons were placed on a Railway Express train and taken 150 miles or so out onto the Texas plains. There the stationmaster would release them all at once, and they'd race home.

Owens says his hobby was a valuable preparation for life, teaching him about responsibility by having to care for the birds, and (note to current death-row inmates) "how to make tough decisions, if you had an injured or sick bird." Still, by the time he entered middle school, Owens says, he found himself favoring other hobbies over his birds. "When I got old enough for girls, I ditched pigeons."

Although Owens claims he now has no time or inclination to return to the hobby, he adds that "occasionally I'll see a flock of pigeons and wonder where they're going." And last year, just before the governor's widowed mother sold the old family home, Owens visited the place for one last look around. Even though three decades had passed, he still could see where his old loft had stood. The recollection of his beloved birds brought the governor to a realization.

"It turns out that six to eight years of pigeon droppings can do permanent damage to a lawn," he says.

Last spring, Adugalski returned to Sosnowka. It was the first time he'd been back since the day he left Poland nearly two decades ago. He brought a camera with him, and as he walked through his village, he snapped hundreds of pictures -- of every corner, every building in the town, and from every angle, as if trying to re-create a three-dimensional place in only two dimensions. He put them in a small album. "This," he says, "is my memory," and he opens it.

His first stop upon arriving in Sosnowka was his father's grave. "He drank too much alcohol, got sick," he says. The memories continued:

"Here is the church. The graves where we used to start fires when I was five. Here is the grocery market where everyone goes every day -- look and see how all the homes are now falling apart?"

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